In defence of an appointed Senate

Posted on June 17, 2013 in Governance Debates – Opinion/Commentary – When the quality of appointments is high, senators can do incredible work without worrying about constituents, elections or partisanship
June 17, 2013.   Mel Cappe

Talk about contrarian views! Considering the current controversies, defending the Senate isn’t going to win me many friends these days. But in my view, an appointed Senate is essential to our democracy and actually, most often, does a good job.

First, let me be clear: I am not interested in being appointed to it. I shill for no one. I was appointed to the ranks of deputy minister by Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and I served Liberal Jean Chrétien as clerk of the Privy Council.

The essence of the argument is that it’s about the people, not the institution. And it’s about what they make of the opportunity.

The appointment process is fine, if prime ministers are held to account for the quality of their appointments.

As a senior official, it was always easier for me to appear before a committee of the House of Commons than of the Senate. In House committees, the two sides would go at each other making petty partisan political points while the official witness sat back and watched. Stick to your facts and you could get out of there without even answering questions.

Before a Senate committee, however, you had to really know your stuff. Senators didn’t have constituencies to worry about or elections to win. They could spend their time doing their homework, delving deeply into substance and challenging official witnesses. They probed the estimates, seriously reviewed legislation and considered big strategic policy questions. Indeed, several were expert in the fields of municipal finance, national security, health care, tax law, business and so on. It was much more difficult for an official.

The people appointed to the Senate were not usually professional politicians. They had actually done something with their lives. They were small business people, senior managers in big business, heads of NGOs or professionals with real-world experience. They were the kind of people who wanted to make a difference and contribute to Canada, without subjecting themselves to the contact sport of elected politics. How to attract such people to public life without making them run for office? Appoint them.

Instead of asking them to be crassly partisan, we have asked our senators to be analytic and to take the long view. A senator appointed for life, or at least until 75, will look over the horizon.

We appoint judges and have an outstanding record of former political actors becoming thoughtful and judicious actors beyond politics. People like Michel Robert, Roy McMurtry and Clyde Wells all became distinguished jurists and in fact, chief justices after having been active in politics. It can be done.

Senate committees can be major contributors to the public debate, going beyond party politics and dealing with policy. The Senate finance committee used to review estimates of government spending and, with Royce Frith, Ian Sinclair and John Stewart, would truly hold the government to account in a way that makes Question Period seem just a joke.

The Senate committee on national security and defence was one of the few forums for serious review of matters such as strategic lift, maritime defence and multilateral alliances.

The Senate committee on social policy has done some of the best work in the country on mental health, directly leading to the creation of the Mental Health Commission of Canada.

Landon Pearson’s child development work was exemplary in making Canada a better place. Roméo Dallaire’s focus on child soldiers is a model for the Senate.

While not always do the reports of Senate committees lead to policyinnovation, they often deeply influence elite thinkers on the subject and profoundly affect the public dialogue.

Should the Senate be reformed to be improved? Absolutely. But that reform should be an improvement – not abolition and not a dramatic overhaul that undermines many of the body’s strengths.

Appointment is a good thing. An elected Senate competing for political place with the electorate would undermine the role of the Commons. It is the Commons that has to constrain the Crown.

Limiting the term to some long period would not offend me. However, I believe eight years is too short. We want senators to take a long view and keep the public interest in mind.

We should not look to the ubiquitous U.S. example. Rather, we might turn to Britain, where the appointment process has been reformed with a commission examining the quality of appointments. And in the House of Lords debates, the so-called people’s peers came from walks of life that nourished and informed the public debate.

At the end of the day, the Senate’s efficacy as an institution of governance depends on the quality of the appointments. More of what Britain calls “crossbenchers” – non-aligned members – would help depoliticize or at least departisan-ize the Senate and raise the level of the debate.

If some have taken advantage of their Senate positions by abusing travel claims, then fix the travel and residency policy. Make it clear and enforce it. And for God’s sake, allow the auditorgeneral to review Parliament as well as the administration of government.

Change the Board of Internal Economy to be a real management board and guardian of integrity. Don’t delegate integrity to a commissioner. And appoint people from all walks of life who want to serve, not just political actors and party hacks. Being active in party politics is a good thing. Keep them in the game – but don’t confine appointments to them.

Finally, we should confine the use of the term corruption to what is really corrupt. Bending the rules and pushing them to and beyond the limit is inappropriate and sad; abusing the contracting process to enrich one’s self is corruption. I want to live in a country where our abuse of privilege is confined to $16 orange juice and $90,000 gifts to the taxpayers.

MEL CAPPE Professor of public policy at the University of Toronto Mel Cappe was clerk of the Privy Council and secretary to cabinet.

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